This week, it’s the contentious subject of foodstuffs. Practical solution to the endemic crime of celebrity chefs also included at no extra cost, along with convincing dystopian alternative for those who prefer their lunch to take three minutes and come from a pot.
A little while back, I wrote a short piece about food on another blog platform when I was attempting to find my voice. It was deliberately confrontational and probably a touch derivative, the main thrust being that food is, in essence, merely petrol to keep us all alive in order to do far greater things than the act of eating itself. This would have been apposite if written in the 1970s (or indeed earlier), when the greater irony may well have been appreciated by frequenters of those appalling trattorias, nascent curry houses and stick-in-the-mud bastions of public school cuisine. But it wasn’t.
Over the last twenty years or so, we have morphed into a nation of foodies. Suddenly, every man and his dog has developed a palate that subtle, it would leave Abigail and her guests floundering like jetsam at one of her soirées. We demand choice and quality as standard (despite having come through the worst recession since WW2) and, more than ever, we require affirmation that our opinions are justified. Why so?
Because our newly-found appreciation of all things gastronomic is nothing more than the emperor’s new clothes. We food snobs, like wine snobs, know deep down that our honed interest in the ephemeral is pretty low down on the pecking order of things that actually matter. Consequently, in much the same way that our current government operates, we surround ourselves with like-minded sycophants who will be the first to forgive us for thinking that it does. So when the bill payer clicks his/her fingers at a chain restaurant minion and they come running, no-one from either camp dares question the validity of the challenge. Money talks, deafeningly when there isn’t much around, and putting an opinionated Herbert to rights is probably not worth losing your job for.
But it is a wafer-thin confidence, to be annihilated absolutely in the not too distant future by global events, the seething aficionados of packaged goods, and common sense. I predict a time when all celebrity chefs are dragged by the hair from their culinary idylls, thrown into the stocks and pelted to death with every last leaf of kale, lollo rosso and organically-farmed, locally-sourced cucumber that inevitably ended its days in the recycling bin. When coffee houses, like televisions in the 1950s, only offer black and white as an option, and if anyone with a manicured moustache demands anything with more than one syllable, they too will be executed on-site in the manner of Charles I and their remains fed to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s pigs. And when the beasts of Smithfield, at the point of their bloody departure from this world to the restaurants of St John Street, are given the option to turn the tables, they do so on the sole condition that they feast exclusively on their perpetrators.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the future.
Like Cornwall, the trouble with the Cotswolds is that they’re woefully inadequate at catering for regular folk. By which I mean that every idyllic bar and restaurant, set in local stone and staffed by enthusiastic pin-striped undergraduates, leaves in its wake a paucity of eateries affordable to the indigenous population that isn’t a flame-haired former news editor or her tit of a husband. Even your bog-standard takeaway has been usurped by Cameron’s cronies, now profiteering proudly from weak puns and an artisan prefix. So, where to fill up without spunking away your wages when buried deep in the West Country?
Good question. And if you are holed up in a country B&B, your options are drastically reduced. For you must either drive to one of these godforsaken places, or learn to enjoy the pleasure of your own company with a Waitrose 2 for 1 nuclear meal and a bottle of anything red that will stay down. A Sophie’s Choice, basically. But then I got to thinking (necessity being the mother of all invention): What if I could harness that 1987 Panasonic Destroyer of All Hopes & Dreams to my own advantage? Perhaps even rustle up something my guts wouldn’t instantly reject, and in record time? The mind began to work overtime, like it’s supposed to do during sex or at the moment of violent untimely death…
As luck would have it, I discovered a Microwave Oven Recipe Book nestled alluringly between a brace of curry menus, purposefully placed in order to offer the budget diner the illusion of opulence. For example – How about some plaice fillets in a white wine sauce? Preparation comes in at a mere 10 minutes, presumably the time it takes to leap into the Thames in Hunters waders and net a couple of the flat bastards before they hightail it off in their inherited Aqua Rover. What’s more, the end result serves four people, a salient glimpse into the lives of others as you attempt to scrape the charred remains of sliced mushroom from the duvet cover. And if you’re feeling adventurous, why not round off the evening with a pineapple upside down cake? Simultaneously conjuring up Hawaii and the 1970’s, this delightful pudding is rustled up in seconds if you happen to have a greased soufflé dish stowed away in your rucksack and can handle 100g of refined sugar before the witching hour.
Sadly I don’t and can’t, to say nothing of the potential shame involved. To fail at cookery is one thing, but to fail at fan-assisted cookery in the seat of all things cookery is quite another. So I bailed, as you’ve probably guessed by now. However, tonight acquainted me with a spectacular 2012 Sangré de Torro (a snip at £8.99) and guess what? That family bag of farm-raised, oak-smoked Gloucester Old Spot flavoured crinkly kettle chips hand-picked by Dave on 26/02/14 doesn’t seem so bad after all.
I love a chilli, me. By this, I do not mean your entry level, piss-weak hot sauce nonsense that supposedly compliments your meal. Let me make this clear: My meal does not need complimenting. If you could only see it from where you’re reading now you’d understand why. What my meal actually needs is some full-tilt Chernobyl fallout if it wants to be taken seriously in this neck of the woods. Proper, blow your doors off action. And, to be frank, if it fails to deliver on this front, it’s gonna end up in the green bin. I’m sorry, I’ve tried to be all sensitive and that when I get hand-peeled aubergine and cauliflower baked in eco-friendly chain oil with a hint of lime, but hinting is utterly pointless if you want to be considered a player on the main stage: Thatcher/Ferguson/Bowie/Matthews/Laker. Need I say more?
With this in mind, I opted to sample the Idle Hour curry offerings last night. The £10 multi-deal sounded pretty good, but after a couple of Harveys I wanted my cage to be seriously rattled and my guts begging for mercy. I was not disappointed, but this was largely down to my Auntie Valerie lobbing her Scotch Bonnet at me after wiping it clean of Trinidadian goat remnants. Now, don’t get out of your collective prams: I’m not saying my meal didn’t deliver. It certainly did, but as a vegetarian I wasn’t able to go Trinidadian for that extra Scoville mile. I settled for the Thai, probably more than adequate for you lightweights, but lacking the endorphin rush I have come to consider as standard. Somewhere deep within I know this is a bit warped, but you can’t fight the facts: I am what God made me and I am beautiful, no matter what you say.
Now, for those of you not up to speed yet, Nibs is no stranger to the hole strewth any more than I am. He was my sole witness at a swirly-carpet job in Horsham back in the ’80’s, when the entire restaurant staff watched us consume a lamb phall through the kitchen porthole. It was he that introduced me to Dave’s Insanity Sauce that actually had excruciating on its sliding scale of endurance. And it was he that suggested last night that I may not be able to handle it any more. That, perhaps, I should consider winding it all down a tad:
Take it easy. Dude, you’ve eaten the hottest. Maybe it’s time for you to hand over the baton. Think about your future. Maybe move outta town, raise some kids. This kinda shit is for the rookies, Bro. You the Daddy, you got nothing to prove…
He’s right, of course: I need to wind my neck in. But there’s always another youngster out there and I must do my bit. It hurts though. God, it hurts.
I was listening to Radio 4 on Saturday morning (as one does) and this lady came on who had been struck temporarily blind. Oh no! But then she went on about how she had reassessed her life and realised it had been peppered with relentless negativity, and from that moment on she vetoed any such sentiments which in turn improved the quality of her everyday life immeasurably. Anyway, I turned it off ‘cos I was late for the Barnes Food Fair, in which Nibs had a stall doing spectacular Bloody Marys I badly needed to assess for this ‘ere blog and ran out to get the train. Cancelled. Engineering works. But before I did my usual Ian Dury (****holes, bastards, ****ing ***** and pr**ks) I thought of that woman, lifted my head up high & took the replacement bus with pride. Good on ‘em, I thought, for actually bothering to replace the entire train with a bus: Good on ‘em.
And when I got to Barnes Common two hours later, no small thanks to weekend traffic and an unfortunate iOS6 maps error, I was determined to keep this up. The sun was out, small boys were kicking a ball about (jumpers for goalposts) and everything was heading up to be a Breugel-tastic, culinary lovefest. Even a Volvo passenger opening her door into my smalls did not manage to dampen my ardour (although I did get the temporary blindness). ‘Oh yes, life is good’ I thought, after sampling several pints of the red stuff which, in turn, led me to the real ale stall where I discovered Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a 32% beauty I saw no reason not to obtain for the very reasonable sum of £45. Which, in turn, made the Barbers’ Shop singers sound so angelical I was compelled to enjoy a large Pimms in sheer admiration which, in turn, made me purchase a rather delightful fishermans’ winkle box for Ursula despite my misgivings as to its authenticity.
You see, what the R4 lady left out, and this is the salient point, is that you don’t need a life-changing event to make every day of your life the last good day of the year. What you actually need is an arsenal of high-quality booze and the ability to set aside the cold front of cynicism for the sunnier climes of La Dolce Vita. And the former aids the latter, trust me. Now, I know Nibs will be wanting me to big up his efforts right here in the last paragraph but there’s no need. Really. You all ate those award-winning burgers, drank the BM’s and had a great time. And you know what? As I struggled to focus on Nick Clegg’s apology in the freesheets strewn about on the tube home and I listened to that viral tune drawn from the very same, I felt really good for the first time in ages. Shortly before taking a very long ride on the porcelain bus…
Anyone who has ever attempted the dark art of writing to a 500 word count will implicitly understand what a taut organ it has to be. One sentence, a word even, can throw the balance of the piece so completely off-kilter it has to be dramatically re-approached, and punctuation (don’t get me started on punctuation) must ripple through the paragraphs like miniscule unseen roadsigns, steering the reader towards the inevitable. So imagine my dismay when I got the call from Idle HQ after I had mentally constructed an hilarious appraisal of our countryside:
Nibs : I know you’ve already done this, but I’m gonna need a big up on Britain’s Favourite Burger this week. Keeps it fresh in their minds.
Me : But I’m doing the country. It’s a corker, trust me.
Nibs : Fine, do the country by all means but just stick in a few words about the burger thing. Why not say I got a bronze? It’s topical & you can put that in the keywords if LOGOG will let you.
Me : You don’t get it. I can’t just bung in stuff about burgers. It doesn’t work.
Nibs : Well, make it work then. Cows come from the country, right? There, you can have that one on me.
Me : It’s not that simple, bro. You can’t just stick in a few words. Writing this blog isn’t just bunging in stuff about burgers. It’s a craft! I think about how it all fits together for days and when I know it’s right, I get it all down. I wouldn’t tell you how to cook one of your specials, would I? Yeah, just bung in a few bits & bobs from the fridge? Jesus H!!! I have my art and you have yours. Now let me get on with it.
Nibs : Stop being a dick. I just want you to say I came third in the burger competition. Bloody hell, get over yourself!
Me : It compromises the whole thing, man! Every piece I write is linear, right? There’s a start, I piddle about with it in the middle and then go in for the kill at the end. And it works like that every week which is why people like it. The comfort of familiarity via comedy of repetition. It’s a tried and tested formula that you can’t screw about with. So if I suddenly bring in burgers it loses its entire thrust. Something would have to give and there’s no fat to fry.
Nibs : You just said it, right there. No fat to fry! Now stick that in the blog & stop being so bloody precious! Jeez, anyone would think I was employing Coren.
Me : Ok bro, we’ll play it your way, shall we? Not a problem! Right, let’s kick off with the classic urban take on our impoverished rural cousins. Except they’re not, are they? Impoverished, that is. Down in that Chipping Norton they’re all stinking, right? Enjoying BRITAIN’S THIRD FAVOURITE BURGER while Rebekah gets her
So I broke into the Palace
With a sponge and a rusty spanner
She said ‘Eh, I know you and you cannot sing’
I said ‘That’s nothing
You should hear me play piano’
The Smiths, 1986
Her Maj: One is ready for bed. Are we all locked in?
Security: We certainly are, Ma’am. Will there be anything else?
Her Maj: Neo, not today. Has that ghastly racket stopped yet?
Security: Not for a while, I’m afraid. Some of them are playing from the roof, apparently.
Her Maj: What a frightful bore. Don’t they have homes to go to?
Security: Most of them do, Ma’am, but not as good as yours.
Her Maj : No, of course not. Run along then, quickly now.
Security: G’night, Ma’am.
Her Maj: Yes, yes! (shuts door, slips into Liberty-print nightie and turns on radio)
‘…and what a glittering spectacle of an evening it has been. A firmament of stars, raising their voices in unison to celebrate the Queen’s 60 years of unwavering devotion to her nation…’
Her Maj: Balls! Wretched little man. Hasn’t got a clue.
‘…as the Palace is transformed into an everyday street with a magnificent light show, and Madness perform ‘Our House’ from the rooftops. Incredible!’
Her Maj: And what, pray, is the point of that? If one wanted to live in a street, one would bloody well have bought one.
(switches off radio. there is a cough from behind the curtain)
Is that you, Philip? I’m afraid the singers are still on, dear, you’ll have to go back to the Edward VII. Tell them your pee’s red again.
Who’s there? Come on out, damn you!
Nuy look here! One is getting a little fed up with this nonsense. Are you one of those oiks from the roof? If so, you can get your Cor Blimey trousers on and scram. There’s nothing for you here. Nothing, one tells you.
It’s not you, is it, Michael? I’m afraid there’s no wine left after the last time and we sent your shoes back in 1984. And all that grubbing about in the papers, really! I thought we had an agreement?
Are you from the Idle Hour? Well, are you? Now listen, the jubilee burgers were perfectly adequate and we settled the bill in full. We’d be grateful if you would consider seating us away from the traps next time and perhaps we just might tip more substantially. Is that what this is about? Come on, Mr Nibs, show yourself, man!
(moves closer to the curtain and throws it back to reveal….)
Her Maj: Elton!!!
Sir Elton: It’s Sir Elton, Ma’am. Remember?
Her Maj: Wawrt are you doing here?
Sir Elton: I’m just teaching that Morrissey a lesson. Think he’ll find not only can I sing but also tickle them ivories a treat. And where’s he for your big day then?
Her Maj: Isn’t he on the roof?
Sir Elton: That’s Madness, Ma’am.
Her Maj: Not arf!
I know what you’re thinking: He’s slipped a day, either Bank Holiday excess or Morris dancing. Well, this time it’s neither, and I refer the discerning reader to last weeks entry for clues. Yes, my good ole ISP surpassed itself this weekend, giving me speeds of 0.01mb/s which rendered the internet unusable for the duration. So, let’s waste no more time & get on with the naming & shaming. It’s Virgin Media. That’s VIRGIN MEDIA. Please, if you’re out there & can help yet another screwed-over punter, pop your advice in the comments section (including ultra-violent stuff, don’t spare the rod) and I will buy you a beer. I mean it. Rant over.
Now, as some of you may already know, Nibs’s award-winning burgers won another award last week. EBLEX, or, to the acronym-phobic the English Beef and Lamb Executive, dole out annual gongs to anyone with the balls to compete against the mighty purveyors of sport-inducing fast food. It is a fiercely contested event with several thousand entries but once again the IH (sorry, Idle Hour) knocked them all into a cocked hat. All but two, that is. So that’s a big bronze for SW13 (South West Thirteen) and diddly squit for the rest of London. Telling, seeing as we are swamped with sleb chefs and the like, and all the more weird for you to have this news delivered by a vegetarian. Them’s the breaks.
I did have visions of being invited (in a reportage capacity, natch) to an opulent, velvet-lined ceremony, a sort of low-rent Oscars perhaps, somewhere in Piccadilly where penguin men and their peacock other halves would chat sotto voce about the state of farming in the UK and the latest must-have ingredient that’s simply divine. I saw Nibs shaking hands with Wossy and, after a short, heartfelt speech during which he fought unsuccessfully to choke back tears, he clasped a 3x actual-size engraved bronze hamburger to his chest with one hand and punched the sky with the other. All to rapturous applause and a 1970’s sound library string section. And as he made his way through the crowd to the bosom of his loved ones, Terry Wogan took the mic from Jonathan and made a shit joke about cows, methane and the third best of all possible burgers. Like he would.
Sadly, this star-spangled fantasy was exactly that. I never got to wear the suit, to weep in the aisles, to shoulder up vicariously to the movers and shakers in the world of burgers. However, as I shimmied into IH Barnes on Sunday with a group of friends clearly impressed by the Bloody Marys, I did feel the need to point out a certain certificate, resplendent in its faux-mahogany frame, and bask in an element of reflected glory. Life is a cabaret, old chum. And I love a cabaret.
Mrs Sting : Is that the Idle Hour?
Barstaff : It certainly is. How can I help?
Mrs Sting : It’s Mrs Sting here. You know, the other half.
Barstaff : Hello Mrs Sting. Would you like to book a table?
Mrs Sting : No, not exactly. But I could use your help. It’s a somewhat delicate matter.
Barstaff : It’s not the, er, tantric business again, is it?
Mrs Sting : I’m afraid it is. And he’s getting worse. I haven’t slept in over a week and I was rather hoping you could recommend something to dampen his ardour, so to speak.
Barstaff : Of course. Well, the organic chicken thighs washed down with one of our biodynamic reds should do the trick. Mr & Mrs Meatloaf were in over Bank Holiday and they had to be airlifted home afterwards.
Mrs Sting : I don’t think so. Any mention of thighs and he’ll be at it like a rat up a drainpipe. No, I was thinking of something a little more sedative perhaps?
Barstaff : How about our Stroh 80% volume Austrian rum? Pop a couple of shots in his coffee when he’s out pointing Percy and he won’t be bothering you for quite some time, I should coco.
Mrs Sting : Been there. He bought a case back after the last European tour and whipped through it like lemonade. Gave a whole new meaning to Viennese Whirl, mind.
Barstaff : Hmmm, difficult one. How’s the book going, by the way?
Mrs Sting : That’s precisely the problem! I don’t have five seconds to myself anymore. The minute I sit down at the computer he gets all hot under the collar and chases me round the mansion like in The Secretary. I’m only on the preface and I’m exhausted already.
Barstaff : Can I make another suggestion?
Mrs Sting : Please do. I’m at my wits end.
Barstaff : It’s a long shot but it might have legs. I’ve been working here for a while now and when we get stragglers at the end of a shift, Nibs hops onto the acoustic and anaesthetises them with his astonishing rendition of ‘Wonderwall’. Works every time, trust me.
Mrs Sting : Perfect! I’ll get the chopper out.
Barstaff : Isn’t that what we’re trying to avoid, Mrs Sting?
Mrs Sting : No, I mean I’ll bring him over tonight. Book me a table for two by the traps.
Barstaff : Slight problem. Mr & Mrs Bono have already reserved the traps table. Popular one with the Live Aid lot, it seems.
Mrs Sting : Listen, I want that table. Do what you have to, ok? If it helps, I’ll do a book reading in your bloody pub when I’ve done it. Got that? Good. And clear a space in the garden for the chopper. I mean, the helicopter.
Mrs Sting will be reading excerpts from her frank autobiography ‘One Swallow Does Not a Sumner Make’ in the Idle Hour Rest Rooms when she has written it. All rights reserved © 2012 EyeBooks UK, including the made-up bits. Especially them.
Our weather, whether we like it or not, is the great leveller. Just as we were throwing sprinklers into deep storage and preparing to watch our green and pleasant land morph into parchment, the heavens opened and did their traditional holiday middle-finger salute for the full term. And that, of course, is how it should be. Lulled into a false sense of security by March’s clement efforts, we needed to be knocked into place by forces we have no control over whatsoever lest, God forbid, grown men whipped out the shorts and their womenfolk allowed it. In public.
Like the metaphoric horse, your average Brit is inexplicably drawn to water at this time of year. Whether it be heading towards it at 6mph on a snarled artery of choice or watching the educated elite slug it out on the Thames, we sure like it wet. So hats off then to plucky Aussie Trenton Oldfield, coming as he does from climes more temperate than our own, for stripping off and mucking in at this year’s Boat Race. Never mind the fact he was a bit miffed about, er, something or another: The man got wet and that’s all that matters. Welcome, Trenton: Now, deal with the rest of the year.
Consequently, it’s no surprise that Race Weekend is the busiest of the year for most pubs on the main drag and the Idle Hour, conveniently located a coxswain’s piddle from the river, is no different. So when all hope of fleshy exposure is dashed against the cruel rocks of climate, the good folk of Barnes head indoors for a restorative sharpener and watch the hardy on the idiot’s lantern. Great for business but staff are run off their feet, tempers fray as service struggles to meet demand and, at the end of play, everyone’s as shagged as the rowers (ahem). Good thing we’ve got our internationally renowned sense of humour to pull us through, eh? And as we down those optimistic Pimmses and fancy French rosés , we learn to put aside our grievances and laugh at the absurdities of life instead of having a pop or flinging ourselves into the nearest river in disgust. It may not have the desired impact but it’s a lot more fun. Damn straight.
The more intrepid Bank Holiday reader may be interested in this: I note that 100 years on, fans of failed liner Titanic are off to pay homage to Mr Cameron somewhere deep in the Atlantic. For somewhere between $4,445 and $9,520 per person. Now, call me old-fashioned but this is devotion to the cause way above and beyond: A simple heads-up on Twitter seems to suffice for most politicians and the monies spared could go some way to improving security at public events, particularly in this our Olympic year. It’s not rocket science. I wonder sometimes, I really do. Perhaps all that water’s made them soft in the head..